09/24/2014 10:40 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Why the Fight Against ISIS Won't Be 'Another Iraq'


Former Secretary of State George Shultz once said that policy making on Central America in the 1980s was "like walking through a swamp." Today, the same kind of swamp is emerging around the effort by the United States to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). And, if history is any guide, this means that the fight against ISIS will not result in another U.S. ground war in the Middle East and may lead, in fact, to a better way to combat terrorism.

The "swamp" Shultz referred to was the Vietnam syndrome, or the U.S. public's aversion to the use of military force in the developing world to shore up or overturn governments in the fight against communism. Shultz's boss, President Ronald Reagan, faced the ire of the Vietnam syndrome within weeks of taking office. Amidst growing public concern about a resurgent communist threat following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reagan believed that his administration had the political space to "take a stand" in Central America. He badly miscalculated. A political firestorm erupted across the country when administration officials insinuated that the United States might use force in El Salvador. Public fears of "Another Vietnam" eclipsed all other policy debates at the time and nearly destroyed Reagan's legislative agenda to revive the struggling U.S. economy, his top policy priority. As the political "swamp" created by the Vietnam syndrome thickened, Reagan wisely chose to retreat. In the end, he sent only a handful of U.S. military advisors and increased military aid to El Salvador. The Vietnam syndrome ensured, in short, that U.S. combat troops never touched the ground in El Salvador or Nicaragua while Reagan was president.

Reagan's story in Central America is not unique. Other U.S. presidents chose military restraint as well when facing similar syndrome pressures at home. George H.W. Bush chose not to "go to Baghdad" in the 1991 Gulf War because, as he admitted in his memoirs, he too feared political fall-out from the Vietnam syndrome. In prior eras, Calvin Coolidge abandoned a regime change intervention in Nicaragua in 1927 due to political pressure from a post-World War I public mindset against any kind of idealistic-looking military action abroad. And, Dwight Eisenhower chose not to place U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam due to the public mentality of "No More Land Wars in Asia" that resulted from public disenchantment with the Korean War.

The same kind of political dynamics are at work today in shaping the U.S. response to ISIS. The American public is in the grips of a profound Iraq syndrome. The traumatizing experience of the 2003 Iraq War left a deep residue on the U.S. public and their representatives in Congress that shows up in today's political discourse as simple, yet oft-repeated phrases, like "Not Another Iraq" and "No Boots on the Ground." Recent polls show the same aversion to robust force. Despite the fact that seven in ten Americans view ISIS as possessing the capability to attack the U.S. homeland, a CNN/ORC poll found that only 38 percent support deploying U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS militants directly. The Iraq syndrome stands to blame for this reluctance to take robust action. "Iraq is a constant ghost hanging over everything," a former State Department official said recently. That ghost, furthermore, is not simply a product of President Obama's cautious personality. Instead, it's an abiding feature of the current-day U.S. political landscape.

Like his predecessors, President Obama is bending policy accordingly. Stated simply, the President's plan for combating ISIS with air strikes and military advisers is nowhere close to the kind of military commitments made by the United States a decade ago in Iraq. These are limited military operations, intentionally crafted to avoid crossing the syndrome-dominated mood of the U.S. public. Even the comments made this week by the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Martin Dempsey, need to be seen in this light. The embedding of U.S. special operations forces to advise Iraqi forces on the front lines and coordinate U.S. airstrikes is a long way from a redeployment of U.S. combat troops to fight ISIS. Efforts by the Pentagon and White House to clarify and back away from Dempsey's comments only reinforce the limited nature of U.S. military action against ISIS and show, again, the sensitivity of the administration to the Iraq syndrome. Outside of a cataclysmic event like a 9/11 attack, policymakers will not have the political space for the foreseeable future to deploy anywhere near the 50,000 to 200,000 combat troops that fought in Iraq during the last decade. The "swamp" of the Iraq syndrome is simply too thick for anything other than limited U.S. military engagement in the fight against ISIS.

If history serves as any guide, that swamp is likely to only grow thicker as the national conversation about Iraq and Syria continues. The best way to avoid "another Iraq" is, in short, to keep talking about it. That is what happened in the 1980s with Central America. The endless political dialogue at home around "No More Vietnams" forced President Reagan to publicly repeat, time and again, his commitment not to use force in El Salvador. Eventually, that commitment became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The same is already happening with today's Iraq debate. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates correctly noted last week, every time President Obama says in public that the fight against ISIS will not be "another Iraq," he boxes himself (and perhaps his successor) into making sure that that pledge comes true.

In the end, this kind of boxing in may not be such a bad thing. We all know how the 2003 Iraq War turned out. Today's Iraq syndrome could save us from a repeat of that debilitating war. In doing so, it might also compel policymakers to find a better way to combat terrorism. The Reagan administration was forced to devise an alternative to direct military action in El Salvador. The alternative worked. El Salvador never fell to communism. Something similar could happen in the contemporary Middle East if President Obama's limited engagement policy works against ISIS. And if that happens, we will all have the "swamp" of the Iraq syndrome to thank for it.